Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 4: June 24, 2007
While it was hard to believe that any more patrons could fit into the Library and Archives Canada theater than at Rosnes' show, the festival managed to squeeze a few more seats into the hall for Frisell's sold out performance, the first of three special events at the festival that will include a late-night duet performance by Toots Thielemans and Kenny Werner, and a concert by legendary drummer Roy Haynes and his young quartet later in the week. The ever-unassuming and affable Frisell, accompanied by longtime collaborator Tony Scherr on bass and newcomer Rudy Royston on drums, wasted no time jumping into his characteristic collage of sounds, derived from an array of pedals on the floor and placed on a stool in front of him.
There was plenty of material from Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian (Nonesuch, 2006), including Thelonious Monk's "Misterioso" and "Raise Four," and the ubiquitous "You are My Sunshine," as well as "Baba Drame" from The Intercontinentals (Nonesuch, 2003). But anyone who expects literal interpretations obviously doesn't know Frisell. While other configurations have more defined structure, including set lists and arrangements, a trio provides the opportunity for Frisell to go wherever his (and his bandmates') muse takes the music. Abstract passages filled with oddly processed guitar tones and jagged loops acted as interludes as the trio finds its way to the next song. There were definitive endings at a number of points, but the set's overriding continuity left the impression of an infinitely deep well-spring of ideas.
Frisell may have long since abandoned the mantle of jazz guitarist by narrow definition, but it hardly matters. He's an almost reluctant guitar hero, capable of searing distorted rock lines one moment and facile but skewed bebop lines the next. Facing inwards towards the band, and with Scherr across the stage doing the same with Royston in the center, communicationboth visual and auralwas optimized. Frisell's idiosyncratic approach to even the most straightforward of tunes meant that there were plenty of surprises and an equal number of laughs throughout. Catching him emphasize the final note of the familiar theme to "Raise Four," with quirky dissonance, and the equally unconventional way that both Scherr and Royston interacted, was sufficient to remove any surprise that Frisell was commissioned, in the 1990s, to score music for a trio of historic silent feature films starring legendary comedian Buster Keaton.
To be able to work with the stylistic boundary busting that's inherent with Frisell, you have to be a special kind of player, able to stretch definitions and bring together disparate approaches. Scherr is as unconventional a bassist as Frisell is a guitarist, and a player with an equally vivacious sense of mischief. As capable of anchoring the group as he was of producing shining albeit brief solo spots (in some ways antithetical to Frisell's more conversational approach to improvisation), he may not be an ideal fit on all of the guitarist's projects. Still, when Frisell needs someone who can turn on a dime from twisted Americana to abstract density and defined swing, one would be hard-pressed to find a better partner.
l:r: Tony Scherr, Rudy Royston, Bill Frisell
Royston may appear to be the new kid on the block, but Frisell actually met him a decade ago, when the two played on trumpeter Ron Miles' outstanding Woman's Day (Gramavision, 1997). A player who combines the behind-the-beat backbeat of Jim Keltner with the textural colors and implied swing of Paul Motian, he's an ideal choice for the no-safety-net approach of this trio. He never soloed but was an equal and vital part of the ever-present chemistry that shaped the flow of the set.
Collaboratively-sensed intuition is essential for this kind of performance, but the chemistry between Frisell, Scherr and Royston combined at such a deep level that there were few visual cues, even less evidence of between-song communication amongst them, and a collective sense of dynamics that created a continual organic ebb and flow. The few looking for a conventional jazz performance may have been scared away within the first minutes of the show, but for those of the capacity crowd that remained, it was the closest thing to actually being inside the heads of these three players, for whom nothing was sacred and everything possible.
Tomorrow: John Geggie Group and UMO Jazz Orchestra.
Visit Renee Rosnes, Bill Frisell and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.